Nothing like a walk in the ballpark
By Eric Neel
Page 2 columnist

There's much to love about a ballpark -- even the homeliest, most desolate one.

The walls of any ballpark change us. Outside, we're the disconnected masses, we're aimless individuals, drones on the 57 freeway in Anaheim. Inside, we're a crowd, we're the red-shirted sea of Edison Field. We have shared roots and a common vision inside. We raise our voices to the heavens and crash our thunder stix as one.

Edison Field
Capping it off: The Ballpark Tour gets an 'A'.
A ballpark reveals our true spirits. In the workaday world, we're reserved, cautious, "civilized" automatons making widgets for the Man, trudging our way toward the deepest, darkest pits of oblivion. But look at and listen to the Hawk Harrelson acolytes stripping bare their souls on the south side of Chicago these days and you will know that in a ballpark, we become wild, carefree, and, sure, maybe a little blotto. We have wings in a ballpark. We fly free and proud. We squawk, unafraid.

In the far corners of the Metrodome and Skydome tonight, there are dozens of kids perched on the edge of their seats wearing baseball gloves. They have no chance at a ball, but still, they sit at attention like brave, vigilant knights. That's the ballpark thing: faith and devotion.

In a ballpark, you smell the familiar smell of salt peanuts, maybe you get a whiff of the bathrooms under the bleachers at Fenway; and just like that, you're breathing in old memories of games with your grandpa.

Ballpark Chat
Page 2's Eric Neel and Jeff Merron -- two of our ballpark tour participants -- stopped to discuss ballparks, hot dogs and beer prices in a ballpark chat.

At Safeco, from sushi to salmon sandwiches, and in Baltimore, from potato knishes to Boog's Bar-B-Q, gluttony is the joyful, unrepentant order of the day. Gluttony is good. Ballparks are good.

We launched Page 2's Summer Ballpark Tour out of love for these and a hundred other ballpark pleasures. Jim, Jeff and I hit the road looking to revel in the ballpark thing and hoping to remind you, dear reader, of your inner ballpark child.

It was a great ride. We trod on hallowed ground, ate mountains of food, downed rivers of drinks, and, oh yeah, saw a few games.

It wasn't all fun and games, of course. We also took the tour because we knew some places were selling the ballpark experience short, and our love for what it could and should be meant we had to call them out.

You've seen the numbers and the critiques. In the end, though, for us the work of the tour boiled down not to a chart but to a vision of an ideal ballpark.

Pac Bell view
For $30, Eric got a poet's view of McCovey Cove (and saw a ballgame to boot).

You know about grass over turf, of course, and open-air over roofs whenever possible. And we have suggestions about less signage, more and better souvenirs, etc.

But based on our fieldwork, we can say (with a nod to our Spinal Tap friends) that there are 11 items crucial to the core of the perfect ballpark. Some are changes the bottom-of-the-barrel parks could make now; some are notes for the architects and owners of the future. They are:

1. Wide, walkable concourses with views of the field all the way around. Let the game be an environment, let the fans move in and around it, let them breathe it in like air. Let them know, like the good people of Pac Bell know, that baseball is all around us.

2. The return of columns supporting the upper decks. Close is the coin of the realm; behind-the-post is a story to tell your kids about how badly you wanted to be there and how crazy-full the house was. Put a guy in the third deck in Oakland and ask him if he'd be willing to swap that seat for one behind a post. He'll take you up on it, just as soon as he catches his breath from the long walk up to the seating hinterlands.

Our final grades for all 30 ballparks:

PNC Park (Pirates): 95
Pac Bell (Giants): 93
Camden Yards (Orioles): 92
Coors Field (Rockies): 85
Edison Field (Angels): 84
Kauffman Stadium (Royals): 84
Wrigley Field (Cubs): 84
Dodger Stadium (Dodgers): 82.5
Comerica Park (Tigers): 82
Fenway Park (Red Sox): 81.5
Safeco Field (Mariners): 81.5
Jacobs Field (Indians): 81
Turner Field (Braves): 81
Ballpark at Arlington (Rangers): 80
Great American Ball Park (Reds): 79
Minute Maid Park (Astros): 78.5
Miller Park (Brewers): 78.5
Busch Stadium (Cardinals): 78
Pro Player Stadium (Marlins): 78
U.S. Cellular Field (White Sox): 74
Yankee Stadium (Yankees): 73.5
Bank One Ballpark (D-Backs): 72
SkyDome (Blue Jays): 67
Metrodome (Twins): 66.25
Shea Stadium (Mets): 63
Network Associates (A's): 59
Qualcomm Stadium (Padres): 58
Tropicana Field (Devil Rays): 56
Veterans Stadium (Phillies): 53.5
Olympic Stadium (Expos): 49

Complete rankings by category

3. Grilled hot dogs. No exceptions (and, in a perfect world, no ketchup either; just mustard, relish, and maybe some on-yaaawn). In Denver, clearly one of the more enlightened cities in America, you aren't allowed to vote or drive a car until you've been licensed to operate a grill.

4. Cheap seats ($5 and under for kids). Win back the base. Until everyone follows suit, we'll be swimming with the fun and frugal in the Fish Tank at Pro Player Stadium.

5. Ticket upgrades. Say I buy a nosebleeder but in the third inning I see one down close that's empty -- let me buy it for a little extra. You get something for what would otherwise be an empty seat; I get that bargain-hunter euphoria that about doubles my enjoyment of the game and absolutely guarantees I'm coming back. Try this, or you know, if you're the Yanks, just keep trying to scare the bejeezus out of me with ushers who work the joint like federal agents, cuz you're the Yankees, right, and you can do whatever you want, right?

6. Retirement of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" during the seventh-inning stretch (except at Wrigley, where it's still working as a tribute to Harry and as a chance for what our friend Bill calls "unintentional comedy" . . . cue Mr. and Mrs. Osbourne). Do it up big -- get Bud to give speeches, retire the damn song's jersey for all we care. But kill it like D-Con kills roaches. Kill it dead. Then let some new grooves and new ideas loose, like maybe everybody dancing and stretching and waving their arms to Stevie's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing," or all the party people in the house doing one lap around the park, shadow boxing all the way, to "Gonna Fly Now." Or let some good ol' ideas have their day, like they do in Houston, when the people get jiggy with "Deep In The Heart of Texas."

7. View of the surrounding area over the outfield walls -- hills, bay, mountains, city skyline, whatever. Witness PNC, Pac Bell and Coors. Do not witness, even on pain of death, Qualcomm's over-the-back-row view of IKEA. Word to the ballpark Man: If you've got nothing to show us, you've chosen the wrong spot for your park.

8. Selections of beer and food from local microbreweries and restaurants. A tip for park owners: Abandon the Bud Lights and Aramarks of the world, and we'll actually spend more. I'm actually paying off my beer tab at Network Associates in installments.

Jim Caple
Jim Caple is just about as intimidating as the ferocious tiger that greets you at Comerica.
9. Distinctive architecture. Stand out and fit the city and the surrounding neighborhood at the same time. Do we contradict ourselves? Very well then, we contradict ourselves. Our ballpark needs are vast. They contain multitudes. And in Detroit, where our needs are met, they contain multitudes of Tiger statues. It's a great touch. Every angle is a photo-op, and the corporate name gets quietly, repeatedly undermined by the name in everyone's hearts: It ain't Comerica, of course, it's Tiger Stadium.

10. Small foul territories, and bullpens into which you can see from the seating areas. Arlington, Texas, and Anaheim, California, are the height of the form on this.

And last but not least . . .

11. Public access. Not like Wayne and Garth in Aurora. I'm talking buses, trains, trams, shuttles, cable cars, and magic carpet rides. I'm talking about sweet evening strolls across the sacred memory of Roberto Clemente. I'm talking about a ride on the El in the Second City. I'm talking about (at a bare minimum) carpool lanes right up to the parking lot. Think party bus, think the cast of "Silver Streak" minus all that murder mystery stuff, think of the kids in "That 70's Show" rocking out because they're ridesharing (but don't think of Ashton, because there's no way he's in that car right now; he's in some limo with whatshername, sitting in traffic, wasting gas, and not getting to the game on time). You get me. Easy transportation to-and-from -- that's all I ask.

Is it too much? Are those 11 guidelines too unreasonable? Not, it seems to us, when we're talking about something as storied as baseball. Step foot in any ballpark in the country, and you know thousands of fans and hundreds of players have been there before and will come after you. It's an aura thing, a history thing, a let-the-circle-be-unbroken thing.

And they hold batting practice in ballparks. What's better than that? What's better than the syncopated byplay between cracks from the cage and snaps off the fungo bat?

And there are ground rules in ballparks. And smiling people who will help you to your seats. And ice cream in little helmets, too. All of this is very reassuring.

What's more, you're offered beer in your seat at a ballpark. And you can spit seed shells on the ground. And there's steel and brick (unless it's poured concrete, of course, but even then it's something solid) you can lean on, come back to, and trust in. And there are scorecards and pencils at a ballpark, and everyone wears caps and sneakers.

These things are inherently good, they are the very definition of good, and we will come out for them even when the ball is bad, even when the ball is in Montreal (well, maybe not when it's in Montreal).

But make a few of the changes on our list of 11 (now or sometime down the road), and you will have a great ballpark. And we won't just come out for that, we won't just hit it along our tours, we'll revere it, we'll pen songs to it, we'll pack up the family and make pilgrimages to it.

Speaking of which, wonder if my editors would see their way clear for me to take next week off. I smell a Steeltown road trip in the offing. Guys?

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.



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